Migrant workers harvest corn on Uesugi Farms in Gilroy, California. (Credit: USDA)

New country, same oppression: It’s time to bolster farmworkers’ rights

Whether rural Pakistan or the Salinas Valley, neglect and injustice pervade farm work. Environmental scientists, policymakers and citizens need to step up for the workers who feed our nation.

"Why is it that farmworkers feed the nation but they can't get food stamps?"


This comment by Dolores Huerta, a labor rights leader, resonates with me. Growing up in a farming village in Pakistan, the sight of yellow mustard fields on a cold morning with a backdrop of dense fog meeting a rising sun is engraved in my mind.

I gravitate toward farmworkers' health issues since farming is so integral to my family's story. I come from a multi-generational farming family where farming can be traced back to my great-great grandparents. I spent my formative years in rural Pakistan, observing many health equity challenges first-hand. Economic instability and anxiety resulting from water scarcity and low crop yields because of changing climate was a reality that my family and many in my community lived through.

Moving to the U.S., I realized the injustices faced by farmworkers in the small farming village where I was raised are not unique. Rather, even in the world's largest economy, the people who grow the nation's food are neglected and left without social, health and labor protections.

This essay is also available in Spanish

As an environmental health scientist, I feel it's incumbent on scientists and policymakers to implement humane, evidence-based policies, which protect farmworkers. Doing my part to change this oppression is the main ingredient in my ikigai; a Japanese concept roughly translating to 'a reason for being.'

New country, same injustices

Early in my career while still living in Pakistan, I worked on a farm as an industrial hygienist where the maltreatment of workers—including work shifts without breaks, and virtually no preventative measures from heat exposure —was commonplace.

These experiences helped me understand factors impacting worker health are mostly beyond their control. It also set my career trajectory in public health before I knew my passion had fancy names such as health equity, environmental justice, and labor rights.

This essay is part of "Agents of Change" — see the full series

Moving to my new home, "the land of the free and the home of the brave," in 2013 the systemic injustices were eerily similar. Only the nouns changed, from Christian to Muslim and Jewish, from Afghan migrants to Mexican migrants. Oppressions faced by farmworkers were no exception either.

Despite being the backbone of the U.S. agricultural sector — an industry contributing about $1 trillion to the US economy —this group of workers is left in the shadows without any public health policy protections. It is difficult to accurately measure the migration status such as legal work authorization among this population. Estimates suggest there are more than 2 million farmworkers working in the fields and feeding the nation. Of these, some 50 percent to 70 percent are without work authorization. Moreover, a majority are migrants and most of them do not speak English as their primary language.

“Agricultural Exceptionalism” 

A majority of farmworkers not only face the challenges of being migrant workers without work authorization, leading to flagrant exploitation and abuses at the workplace, but also suffer the conveniently overlooked burden of 'Agricultural Exceptionalism.'

Agricultural Exceptionalism is a form of structural oppression that means an exclusion of farmworkers from most major worker protection laws in the country. For instance, farmworkers were excluded from the National Labor Relations Act, which protects workers' rights for collective bargaining, unionizing and collective action against abusive employers.

They were also excluded from protections in the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), a federal law establishing the minimum wage, at the time of its passage. While some protections have been added since FLSA was passed, farmworkers at small farms— defined as less than 500 'man days' of agricultural labor where a man day is equivalent to an employee working for at least an hour— remain exempt from minimum wage and overtime pay protections. Moreover, FLSA also establishes the minimum age for farm work at 12.

These systematic oppressions baked into public policies and the prejudice faced by farmworkers based on, sex, gender, ethnicity, and linguistic ability have a detrimental effect on their health and well-being. The cumulative discrimination based on these overlapping identities is also known as intersectionality. This status quo warrants a much stronger policy and advocacy response.

Scientists need to step up 

"Every single tomato has a story... it's a story of transnational families and shattered dreams," said Evelyn Encalada, an organizer at Justice for Migrant Workers in Ontario, Canada.

This quote captures the essence of the farmworkers' plight and humanizes this population for scientists and broader society alike.

Scientists often get lost in the technical details and p-values, losing touch with the human element of populations we aim to serve.

So, think about the underpaid, overworked farmworker when you are enjoying your salad. All Americans have a role to play in advocating for the fundamental rights of all workers through active civic participation and demanding policies protective of worker rights.

'More research is needed' is not necessarily true in farmworkers' health research — plenty of research exists to know that something needs to be done.

What we lack is the translation and application of such research. Scientists have a critical role to play in translating evidence of injustice into policies to improve the working conditions for farmworkers. Instead of writing another grant pursuing yet another Ivory Tower idea with no real-world application, scientists should reach out to impacted communities such as farmworkers, assess their needs and conduct appropriate applied research with the potential to scale up interventions and inform public policies.

We ought to do better. Please join me in advancing positive change and holding each other accountable.

Ans Irfan, MD, MPH is a doctor of public health (DrPH) student and an adjunct professor at the Milken Institute School of Public Health, George Washington University. He is also a Health Policy Research Scholar with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. He can be contacted at ansirfan@gwu.edu

This essay is part of "Agents of Change," an ongoing series featuring the stories, analyses and perspectives of next generation environmental health leaders who come from historically under-represented backgrounds in science and academia. Essays in the series reflect the views of the authors and not that of EHN.org or The George Washington University.

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